Don’t think stress can cause weight gain? Think again
For the average person, approaching the daily challenges of life can be a lot like drinking a strong cup of coffee—it can be stimulating, but can also keep you up all night! Expenses, work deadlines, and family responsibilities are a daily reality for all of us. In a word, it’s stressful! A question I’m often asked is whether stress can cause weight gain. The answer, unfortunately, is yes.
At its most primal level, stress is our body’s adaptive response to potential dangers, and it’s a jungle out there. Imagine a gazelle on the savannah suddenly faced with the prospect of becoming a lion’s next meal. Our default response to danger is fight or flight. And a smart gazelle always runs.
Our response to stress is not fundamentally different. There are times when we run, but more often than not in life we have to stand and fight (after all, our families’ survival and well-being might depend on it). An important distinction is that once the gazelle is out of danger, it immediately goes back to the business of grazing, relaxed, without a care in the world. For us, stress is unremitting. From a physiological perspective, our bodies automatically keep pumping out chemicals as if a lion is constantly stalking us. Without our knowledge, the consequences can be devastating not only to our waistline, but to our overall health and wellness.
Information about our environment is constantly streaming at us via our five senses. We experience them through what I like to call our 6th faculty—our brain. While we are generally aware of the conscious thoughts that control our personality traits and actions, the primitive part of our brain works 24/7, automatically responding to what our subconscious believes is in our best interest: survival.
Historically, our species has had to contend with two important and very real threats. The first was starvation; the second was injury or death at the hands of predators or rivals. Fast-forward to the present and our landscape has changed dramatically. Unfortunately, our bodies are still responding as if they were living in the past. Starvation? Think the exact opposite. Hunting and gathering is now limited to the grocery store, restaurants, and our refrigerators, even though our body chemistry is perpetually in a fight-or-flight standby mode.
This has led to a condition I call autonomic confusion. The autonomic nervous system is what controls the automatic responses I’ve been describing. Our brain is confused as to how the body should respond. Is it living on easy street, or is it under constant attack?
Permit me to inject a little more science as I explain my point. In response to possible attack, the sympathetic nervous arm of the autonomic nervous system releases chemicals to deal with what it believes to be an immediate danger that could result in wounds, bleeding and possible infection—heart-rate and blood pressure increase, blood sugars rise, blood clotting steps up, cholesterol production increases and inflammatory cytokines are at the ready. It’s the perfect storm for the majority of our biggest killers. Of course, the threat never quite materializes. The parasympathetic arm steps up to the plate and, in addition to the actions of fat-storing hormones such as insulin on our dietary sugars, the net effect is to take the sugar produced by the liver and borrowed from the more accessible and harmless peripheral fat (in preparation for battle) and to restore it in the more dangerous and less accessible visceral fat. That would be the kind that forces us to purchase clothes in ever-increasing sizes.
I believe this autonomic confusion is at the root of why so many individuals struggle with their weight and why we’re on so many medications for chronic illnesses (obesity-related or not).
This concerning situation reminds me of a saying we used to recite as children that needs to be rebooted for the majority of us as adults—sticks and stones can break our bones, but stress can really kill us!
In a future blog I’ll offer my tips for combating everyday stress en route to a healthier life. Until then, stay well and keep enjoying your body evolution.
Dr. Jeffrey Brown, Medical Director
Your Body Evolution